Amazon Finally Stops Defying Labor Law After Repeated Requests From California

Motherboard obtained letters between Amazon and the California’s Labor Commissioner Office saying the e-commerce giant was violating a state paid leave law enacted to prevent the spread of Coronavirus but now will comply.
July 10, 2020, 9:17pm
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For more than two months, Amazon violated a California paid sick leave law intended to prevent the spread of Coronavirus, at facilities in California’s Inland Empire, according to letters between Amazon and California’s Labor Commissioner's Office obtained by Motherboard.

But after California’s Labor Commissioner Office sent a series of four letters to Amazon, including a warning, the company has agreed to comply with the law, which went into effect in April.

A group of Amazon warehouse workers in the area, known as Inland Empire Amazonians Unite, who first contacted the labor commissioner to raise concerns, have declared Amazon’s decision to post the law on their internal web portal and on bulletin boards all of its facilities, an organizing victory.

“Special thank you to all the Amazonians who helped shed light on the company ignoring state law,” the group posted on Twitter. “Amazon only acts when we do. Let's keep pushing.”

Amazon did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The order, signed by California Governor Gavin Newsom on April 16, requires that employers provide all food sector workers with two weeks of paid leave for COVID-19-related reasons, including California workers recommended to self-isolate by a health professional because of COVID-19 concerns.

While Amazon’s paid sick leave policy covers those who test positive for COVID-19 as well as those with symptoms, it does not extend to workers who have been recommended to self-isolate by health professionals with concerns that are broader than being diagnosed with COVID-19.

In May, The Guardian reported that Amazon sent emails to employees in the Inland Empire, dismissing paid leave requests and claiming that the California law did not apply to warehouse workers, even though the law explicitly covers “workers at warehouses where food is stored.”

Amazon’s decision to follow the law arrives during a period of widespread concern from labor leaders, workers, and community activists who say Amazon has not taken enough steps to protect workers during the pandemic. In late April, Amazon announced it would end its unlimited unpaid sick leave policy for warehouse workers on May 1, a benefit offered at the start of the pandemic to all Amazon employees for any reason.

Slashing that benefit, as COVID-19 outbreaks in warehouses around the country showed no signs of slowing down, raised concerns that Amazon’s low-wage employees would have no choice but to show up to work sick. In April, hundreds of Amazon warehouse workers called out sick to protest Amazon’s decision to terminate the benefit.

On May 14, the labor commissioner sent the first in a series of letters to Amazon, reviewed by Motherboard, at first informing it about the law, and then warning them about its failure to comply. “Amazon and Whole Foods are subject to the executive order and must provide Covid-19 supplemental paid sick leave to eligible workers,” the labor commissioner wrote.

The second and third letters in late May advised Amazon that its paid sick leave policy was still not in compliance with the state’s, and that it needed to inform workers about the benefit. On June 16, the commissioner followed up again, asking Amazon to comply by June 24. Amazon missed that deadline.

On June 26, the California labor commissioner wrote again, “we requested a response by June 24, 2020, whether Amazon would post the Executive Order N-51-20 poster in its California facilities… that seemed a relatively simple compliance issue as it required only printing and posting the single page… if you do not respond, we will be forced to conclude Amazon declines to comply and will have to proceed accordingly.”

Later that day—and more than two months after the order went into effect—Amazon notified the state that it would comply.

“The model poster for Executive Order N-51-20 is now on Amazon’s A to Z portal… We expect to have the hard copy model posted on bulletin boards by the end of the week,” Michael Deal, an Amazon attorney, wrote to the California labor commissioner.

Inland Empire Amazonians Unite has tracked at least 122 COVID-19 cases at the Inland Empire’s 14 Amazon fulfillment centers. Amazon is the largest private employer in the Inland Empire, which lies just east from Los Angeles.

The letters between Amazon and California's Labor Commissioner can be accessed here.